Elementary and middle school yearbooks are laid out across my childhood bedroom in perfect rows, organized in chronological order, open to my class pages. Glancing over the faces of former classmates, I take note of how similar my peers looked during those years—most sharing the same toothless grins; their faces looking to the camera with big, optimistic blue eyes; freckles covering every inch of skin; and stringy, tangled, dishwater-colored hair tied up in shoelace scrunchies and bows. Focusing in on the “S” row where my photo should be, I expect to see the same youthful features in my own picture, but I am instead taken aback to find one large, caterpillar-like fuzzy shape protruding from the small square adorned with my name: a massive unibrow.
This must be a publishing glitch of some type, I tell myself. Maybe someone spilled a bottle of ink across where I should have been. When I start to trace my pictures across the school years spanning grades four through seven, however, I realize this is no error but a recurring constant. It is, in fact, my unibrow—my decidedly Arab unibrow.
Somewhere around the age of 12, I vaguely remember arguing with my mother about severing my one eyebrow into two. She indicated that I was too young to be dealing with such things, to which I would whine back with my characteristic pre-teen, “Whyyy?” What were these “things” she referred to? Was she trying to spare me the frequent expenses associated with weekly visits to the eyebrow lady at the nearby salon? Was she trying to make sure I stayed fairly unattractive for as long as possible? Whatever her reason, I refused to settle, and continued to press my case with a passion befitting the Great Schism of 1054 . Laying the foundation for my future career as a lawyer, I settled my first case, getting my mother to accept a narrow separation of my two brows. With a small hint of a pair of eyebrows to face my remaining middle school days, I now had a little less to furrow about.
While this story of one young Arab girl’s struggle to tear her eyebrow asunder may sound like a recap from a recent Keeping Up with the Kardashians episode, the unibrow symbolizes something more than an obsession with personal aesthetics. My brow(s) were a symbol of my constant struggle to understand my cultural identity. Here I was an all-American kid growing up in Northern Virginia—the varsity cheerleader, the honor student, and later the sorority girl at the big football university. But I possessed this distinguishing feature that set me apart from my peers. I was so much of the same, and yet I was so different. Was I Lebanese? Was I American? Could I be a Lebanese-American? Or should I be an American-Lebanese?
My parents came to the United States in 1989, near the end of the Lebanese civil war. We made our big American debut in the most dramatic way: with my pregnant mother going into labor with my younger sister on the flight over. I grew up in a middle-class home in an affluent D.C. suburb, filled with the aroma of chicken shawarma, adorned with Lebanese artisanal decor, and set to the sounds of Arabic satellite TV. I had mostly white friends, many of whom had never traveled overseas before and couldn’t point to Lebanon on a map.
September 11th didn’t help. It created the appearance of a conflict between my being Lebanese (aka Arab) and being American. The ensuing war on terror thrust me into the business of constantly seeking to correct misunderstandings about the Arab and Muslim worlds (starting with the fact that the two aren’t synonymous). I often found myself clarifying, rather defensively, that I was a Lebanese Christian, though there is obviously nothing dishonorable about being a Muslim.
In the days following 9/11, my parents were very uneasy about how to respond to the backlash from Americans to the Arab world. “If anyone asks you where you are from, you tell them you are a Phoenician,” my father told us. This struck me as rather ludicrous, as I knew from school that the Phoenicians, who did in fact thrive in the Eastern Mediterranean at one point, had been a dead civilization for approximately three millenia. And it’s not like we’d moved in from Arizona.
Looking back on that moment now, I realize how concerned my parents must have been about our social environment. Suddenly every Arab became a threat to national security, portrayed as a potential suicide bomber, jihadist, or extremist. I would often get asked whether all the women in Lebanon were covered—as in covered in a hijab or burqa (which, if you have been to downtown Beirut, a party town if there ever was one, you know to be a preposterous question). I shared with everyone the fact that Lebanon was made up of a near perfect split between Muslims and Christians. Regardless of my efforts to champion the Arab identity, after 9/11, it definitely seemed wise to skirt around my feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to avoid taking a stance on the Iraq/Afghanistan war, and to keep my mouth shut when the term “terrorist” was used casually in conversation to describe individuals wearing cultural head dresses. In an effort to avoid making waves, I would let plenty of stereotypes and jokes roll off my back.
This wasn’t always easy, given that I grew up immersed in my Lebanese-Greek Orthodox background. Not only did I grow up listening and watching Arabic satellite TV, but my parents spoke Arabic to my two sisters and me, we lived within a half-mile of nearly all of my mother’s five siblings and their children (our Thanksgiving table was set for 35), and we celebrated “our Easter” weeks after everyone else’s Easter and Spring Break had come and gone.
When my classmates were off at summer camp or some Caribbean vacation, my family and I were bound for at least five weeks at my grandmother’s home in northern Lebanon. I would spend my Arabian days and nights swimming in saltwater pools, gorging on homemade hummus and baaklava, and belly-dancing on the beaches of Byblos. For my parents, these trips were about going back home—not just to see their families, but to reengage with their own culture. I enjoyed these trips, but I never found that I could naturally fit in. I spent most of those vacations trying to hide my horrible American accent and settling on speaking Arabish—a mix of Arabic and English—and exhibiting a clear discomfort with the more glottal phrases. I couldn’t tell my cousins about the cool bar and bat mitzvahs I attended the year I turned 13, because “friends” and “Jewish” did not fit grammatically into the same Arabic sentence. I also could not grasp why I had to refrain from saying or doing certain things because they reflected poorly on my family. I was far too enamored with my American sense of autonomy to settle on these seemingly antiquated societal expectations.
This was the problem with my cultural unibrow: When my two sides confronted one another, things got, well, hairy. It always seemed that I was too Lebanese to be American, but also too American to be Lebanese. Trying to reconcile the two formed an unnatural union. Just as with my ever-converging set of eyebrows, it was much easier to deal with both sides when they were kept apart. I would throw on my Lebanese tarboosh and become the foreign femme in situations when I wanted to connect with others in a way that felt important, like when I traveled overseas, or when I met other foreigners, or when I wanted to challenge my American friends to remember that the world did not consist of the United States alone. Conversely, I’d slip on my baseball cap to remind myself that America had given me a life of opportunity, friends, education, and the proverbial freedoms and mobility I wouldn’t have had back in Lebanon. I wore either of my two sides when convenient, which did little to reconcile the cultural identity crisis I tried to keep at bay for so long.
My job these days entails focusing on Middle Eastern affairs and U.S. foreign policy, so I have managed to turn my personal effort at reconciling my two identities into my professional preoccupation as well. And there’s never a dull moment in this arena: Soon after settling into this work, the Middle East began its latest spiral into chaos, with the military coup in Egypt and Syria’s civil war and chemical warfare controversies.
Growing up in the post-9/11 world with revolution and war consuming the Middle East, being an Arab-American may seem one of the more anomalous of hyphenated identities. However, settling on being just an Arab or just an American would discount half of me. There is much beauty in being from both the Middle East and the United States, and so I will persist in dealing with my proverbial unibrow, trying to clean up that fuzzy middle area. But now that the unibrow has overgrown into other areas of my life, it looks like I’ll need a bigger set of tweezers.